Things are looking up for the Creed family. Freshly transplanted out of the city, Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two children just moved to the country and their at the doorstep of their new home. Their daughter Ellie stares in wide-eyed wonder at their new home, Rachel holds baby Gage happy in her arms, and it’s a perfect family moment — until a giant truck hauls down their neighboring street, shattering the quiet will a thundering noise of promised tragedy, grief, and all the other horrible things horror fans know are headed their way.
You will have seen that scene at the start of the new Pet Sematary trailer released today, but the first time I saw it was on set in Vancouver, Canada, where Paramount finally brought to life a new adaptation of the beloved King novel after the project spent years in development. Directed by Starry Eyes duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, the new adaptation promises a very different interpretation from that of the fan favorite 1988 adaptation of the same name.
The film follows the Creed family to their rural new home, where tragedy strikes in the form of a speeding truck and sends them down a spiral of grief and denial that leads to some seriously spooky undead carnage when Louis takes it upon himself to bring their dearly departed back from the dead.
For the new incarnation, Kölsch and Widmyer assembled an exciting ensemble of standout actors, including Clarke, Seimetz, and the impeccably cast John Lithgow as the Creeds’ new avuncular elderly neighbor Jud Crandall.
“We didn’t want to get traditional movie stars. We didn’t want them distracting from the story,” Widmyer explained when we spoke to him on the set. “You want people who sort of bleed into the story and feel very organic. And Jason Clarke has always been one of those guys that steals a lot of movie that he’s in. My parents might not know what his name is, but then they see a movie and go ‘I like this guy.”’ He’s that sort of person. Same with Amy Seimetz.”
And the actors were equally excited to take on the material, particularly Clarke and Seimetz, who counted themselves as big fans of the book. Clarke spoke with real passion for the novel, which the actor said he read eight times (and you damn well believe him when you hear him recite the details of his favorite scenes), and felt a real connection to the character of Louis.
“You read it and I think the struggle is, it’s one of the great what ifs. What if you could?” Clarke asked. “What would you do? I think everyone can relate to it. It’s just a normal dude, a dad who gets this dark secret and does something like Frankenstein’s Bride or the monster of Frankenstein. You create something and then it exists.I like Louis. I like that dark psychological journey.”
Likewise, Seimetz is a huge fan of the book, a lifelong King enthusiast who started reading his horror novels at quiet a young age. For her, one of the important things about getting Rachel right — with all her terrifying childhood trauma — was stepping away from portraying her as a frail and broken woman. “One of the things I talked about with the directors is that she can’t be crying all the time, from day one,” Seimetz said. “I know she has trauma from her past, but it can’t be constant. She can’t just be traumatized all the time. She had two children, so she got through the trauma of childbirth, [Louis[ stayed with her, so at some point she had to have moved on and carried that pain with her.”
In contrast to his co-stars, Lithgow had quite the different entry point to the material — he read the story for the first time when he got the script. “I was captivated by the story,” Lithgow said when asked what drew him to the project. “I hadn’t read the book when it came to me, nor had I seen the movie. The closest I came to knowing about this was being an old friend of Fred Gwynne’s.”
“I read it and it scared the hell out of me. The first shocks on the page were the first shocks in the film, it really shocked me,” he continued. “I love horror that is played for completely authentic human emotion, and to me, because it’s a family story and everybody has a family, everybody connects with with a parent or a child, it just seemed to have this emotional foundation to it that can really take people to a cathartic place.”
So how will Lithgow’s take be different from the oh-so-quotable work of his friend Gwynn in the original film? For one thing, as you may have noticed in the trailer, we won’t hear Jud with that oh-so-quotable accent. Lithgow decided not to watch the original film before finishing his work on the new one. Kölsch explained, “John purposefully didn’t want to watch it because he wanted to do his own thing, and we actually were debating whether we should tell him to or not. And we said no, not to because the thing is, everyone I know who says lines from Jud in the first movie can’t say it without saying it in Fred Gwynne voice, it’s just kinda built in. So it’s like, if John Lithgow watches this movie, is he now going to be saying all of these lines in Fred Gwynn voice like everyone else does?”
But they didn’t just avoid cross-contamination with Gwynn’s performance in the 1989 adaptation, they scrapped the accent altogether, removing one of the character’s most instantly recognizable attributes in King’s novel. Lithgow, however, was passionate in his belief that playing the character with a thick accent would diminish the sense of reality. “Stephen King writes him with a very strong accents, and they described Fred as making a real meal out of the accent,” the actor said. “To me, even a perfectly accurate accent draws attention to itself.” Adopting a thick country accent, he continued, “I coulda had a dialect coach and I could have worked mighty hard on this accent but it would have immediately taken you out of the story and I thought it was so important for people never to be taken out of the story, not for a second, so we just discarded it.”
Other little changes had to be made to update the material to the modern day setting — Black Label and Chesterfields, for example, Jud’s beer and cigarettes of choice in the book are no longer sold in the United States. But if there were compromises in to-the-letter faithfulness and broader plot changes, Widmyer and Kölsch promise that the changes remain true to the spirit of the book. “We’ve given ourselves freedom. We took some liberties with things, we’ve changed some things,” Widmeyer said, adding “they’re things that were probably tough to adapt and had been done already, and we found ways to do the same thing but in our own way.”
And they’re definitely not worried about living up to the iconic moments from the book and the film that preceded them. “We’ve gone out of our way to top those [iconic] elements, Widmyer said with a grin. “We feel confident. We feel good. We’re doing some pretty crazy shit.” And they may be making changes, but as fans of King’s work, they also made sure to lay in plenty of nods to the source material. As an example, Widmyer looked back to when they boarded the project. The film already had a script when they came on, but during their pass, they made it a priority to bring certain elements from the book back. “Even if it just comes down to a specific line that we know is a fan favorite line that wasn’t in their script,” Widmyer said, “we just really worked to get all that stuff in there.”
They also made an effort to make sure the script had the pacing and tone of King’s novel. “The book takes place late summer into fall and that’s it. It’s really just that transition to another season. It’s also one of his shortest novels. So not a whole lot really happens as far as action moving the story forward,” Widmyer said. “It’s about this family moving to a place and this terrible season they go through. So our whole thing was pace it out like that, don’t pace it out like a horror film, pace it out like a family drama that has horrific elements to it.”
“I think the best horror really should be approached that way,” he added. “You shouldn’t approach it like you’re making a horror film, you should approach it like you’re making a tragedy or a domestic drama that are metaphors for grounded horror. That’s the way we approach all horror.”
Pet Sematary arrives in theaters on April 5, 2019.